William E. Spriggs, who over a four-decade career in economics sought to root out racial injustice in society and in his profession, died Tuesday in Reston, Va. He was 68 years old.
The AFL-CIO, for which Dr. Spriggs was chief economist for more than a decade, announced his death. Jennifer Spriggs, his wife of 38 years, said the cause was a stroke.
One of the foremost Black economists of his generation, Dr. Spriggs served as Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Obama administration and held other public sector roles earlier in his career. But he was also known for his work outside of government as an outspoken and often quoted advocate for workers, especially black workers.
In addition to his role in the Washington-based AFL-CIO, he was a professor at Howard University, where he mentored a generation of black economists in pushing for change in a field dominated by white men.
Duke University economist and longtime friend William A. “Bill was someone who was deeply committed to the idea that we do economics because we have a social purpose,” Darity Jr. said in a phone interview. “It is not a discipline that should be deployed just to play parlor games, and that we should use ideas developed from economics to design social policy that will improve the lives of the most people.”
Dr. Spriggs worked on a variety of issues including trade, education, the minimum wage, and Social Security. But the topic he came back to most often, and the topic he spoke about most passionately, was racial disparities in the labor market. Black Americans, he repeatedly pointed out, consistently experienced unemployment at twice the rate of white people—a troubling fact that he argued received little attention among economists.
“Economists try to rationalize this disparity by saying that it simply reflects differences in skill levels,” Dr. Spriggs wrote in an opinion article in the New York Times in 2021, before rebutting that claim with a striking statistic: The unemployment rate for white high school dropouts is almost always below overall Black unemployment.
During the 2020 nationwide racial census following the death of George Floyd, Dr. Spriggs wrote a open letter to his fellow economists who were sharply critical of Field’s approach to race—not only in its failure to recruit and retain black economists, which had been widely documented, but also in economic research.
“Modern economics has a deep and painful set of roots that very few economists acknowledge,” Dr. Spriggs wrote. “In the hands of many economists, it remains with the assumption that African Americans are inferior until proven otherwise.”
Biden administration officials said they heard Dr. Spriggs to senior economic policy roles. In the end, he stayed out, urging the administration publicly and privately not to back down from its commitment to ensuring a strong economic recovery. In recent months, he was an outspoken critic of the Federal Reserve’s aggressive efforts to tame inflation, which Dr. Spriggs warned would disproportionately hurt black workers.
“Bill was a towering figure in his field, a trailblazer who challenged the field’s core assumptions about racial discrimination in labor markets, pay equity and employee empowerment,” President Biden said in a statement on Wednesday.
William Edward Spriggs was born on April 8, 1955, in Washington to Thurman and Julianne (Henderson) Spriggs. He was raised there and in Virginia. His father served as a fighter pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II and went on to become a physics professor at Norfolk State University in Virginia and Howard in Washington, both historically black institutions.
His mother was also a veteran and became a public-school teacher in Norfolk after earning a college degree while her son was in elementary school.
“I remember studying history together,” Dr. Spriggs later remembered her mother at the White House blog post Wrote when he was in the Labor Department. “She looked at children’s books covering the topics she was learning about.”
Dr. Spriggs earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Williams College in Massachusetts and attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a master’s degree in 1979 and a doctorate in 1984, both in economics. While in graduate school, he served as co-president of the graduate student teachers’ union, helping to rebuild it after a largely unsuccessful strike the year before.
Dr. Spriggs stood out at Wisconsin, and not only because he was the only black graduate student in the economics department, recalled Lawrence Mitchell, a classmate who would later be president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, where Dr. Spriggs had worked for many. Year.
Even as a graduate student, Dr. Mitchell said, Mr. Spriggs was skeptical of the conservative theories his professors were teaching about how companies determine workers’ wages — theories that depend on supply and demand. Beyond leave no room for discrimination or other forces. And unlike most students, Mr. Spriggs was not interested in working for a top-ranked school where he could get a job; He wanted to work for a historically black institution, as his father had.
He fulfilled his wish, teaching first at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro and then at Norfolk State University – where his father also worked – before taking jobs in government and left-leaning think tanks. He returned to academia in 2005 when he joined Harvard. He was the chair of its economics department from 2005 to 2009.
In addition to his wife, whom he met in graduate school, his survivors include his son William; and two sisters, Patricia Spriggs and Karen Baldwin.
In the careers of dozens of young economists, Dr. Spriggs had a hand.
“I would not be an economist today without Bill Spriggs,” said Valerie Wilson, director Programs on Caste, Ethnicity and Economy Economic Policy Institute.
Dr. Wilson was taking a break from graduate school and was considering leaving the field altogether when one of his professors recommended him to work for Dr. Spriggs at the National Urban League. He helped restore her passion for economics by showing her an approach to work that was less theoretical and more focused on the real world, she said. After two years at the Urban League, she joined Dr. Spriggs that she is going back to graduate school.
His response: “We need you in the profession.”
Jim Tankersley Contributed reporting.